Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
And Immortality.
We slowly drove - He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility -
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess - in the Ring -
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain -
We passed the Setting Sun -
Or rather - He passed Us -
The Dews drew quivering and Chill -
For only Gossamer, my Gown -
My Tippet - only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground -
The Roof was scarcely visible -
The Cornice - in the Ground -
Since then - 'tis Centuries - and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity -
Composed c. 1862
I HAD NO concept of the radicality of Emily Dickinson’s work. I did not understand her passionate intellectual ferocity. Like all poets setting out and making their way through high school, I felt like an oddball and should have liked her most popular piece—"I'm Nobody! Who are you? / Are you - Nobody - too?"—which is about being an outsider, but I thought it was cutesy and mixed it up with the poems of E. E. Cummings, which I condescended to as an adolescent. My teacher liked a verse that would later go on a postage stamp, "If I can stop one heart from breaking, / I shall not live in vain," but I thought it sounded treacly, like something from the Girl Scouts. I practically gagged over a poem called "The Railway Train" ("I like to see it lap the Miles - / And lick the Valleys up"). Dickinson's poems were given fake titles and regularized in textbooks in those days, and their mysterious splendors evaded me.
My senior year I met an art student who wore a faded leather jacket and smoked cigarettes and loved Emily Dickinson's poems. She said that Dickinson was so far out of the box that we were still trying to put her back inside. She said that Dickinson was a spiritual force to be reckoned with, like Emily Brontë or St. John of the Cross. I should stop comparing her to Longfellow and start thinking about Arthur Rimbaud or Sylvia Plath, who were Loaded Guns. Listen to this, she said, fixing me with a stare: "I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it's true." One day she noticed I wasn't wearing a belt and said, "He put the Belt around my life - / I heard the Buckle snap." She said that I was deceived because Dickinson wore a brooch and an old-fashioned dress; in fact, her poems were volcanoes ready to erupt, they were fractured and filled with calamity, I should take the test:
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can
warm me, I know “that” is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of
my head were taken off, I know “that” is poetry. These are the only
way I know it. Is there any other way.
Dickinson's idea of poetry changed me. Unlike my high school teachers, she didn’t say that she knew poetry by any intrinsic qualities of poetry itself, like rhyme and meter. Rather, she recognized true poetry by the extremity, the actual physical intensity, of her response to it. She knew it by contact, what it did to her, and she trusted her response. She had a voracious appetite for reading poetry. She read it with hunger and thirst—it was sustenance to her. I vowed to be more like that. I wanted to catch up, and so I bought a copy of her Selected Poems, which baffled and intrigued me, like Rimbaud's prose poems, which I gobbled up in bad translations. I decided that if I memorized some of her poems then I would understand them better. I still recall the night I rifled through the pages and came to "Because I could not stop for Death," which stopped me in my tracks. I didn't know it was famous. "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

  I have been reciting this poem for fifty years and I'm still not certain that I can encompass it. Emily Dickinson seems to have written this untitled lyric sometime in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War. One of the odd lusters of American poetry is that the early 186os were the years of her greatest productivity as a poet. She wrote roughly half of her nearly eighteen hundred poems while a war raged obliquely in the background. It seems meaningful that Dickinson, who was a shocking poet and an American original, found it necessary to write poems of self-division at such a decisive moment of self-division for the country.

  No one poem can enclose Dickinson's work. She pointed a wide compass. In the best single essay written about her work, "Vesuvius at Home," Adrienne Rich catalogues some of her subjects: "volcanoes, deserts, eternity, suicide, physical passion, wild beasts, rape, power, madness, separation, the daemon, the grave." I would add crucifixion, pain, and the afterlife, among others. Many of Dickinson's poems are surgically probing, skeptical, deathward-leaning, concerned with deliverance, obsessed with endings. She satirized the hypocrisy of organized religion, the outdated Puritanism of her day, but she was interested in the metaphysical concerns of Christianity and created her own idiosyncratic theology. Her poems seem written in the aftermath of some extraordinary unnamed personal trauma. One after the other, her adoration come to grief. Most of them do not address a collective suffering directly, though they are shaded by the Civil War much more than has been previously thought. They have a martial backdrop. Writingto Poetry magazine in 1932, Marianne Moore, a figure also lauded for her "purity," noticed something that has been repeatedly overlooked: "Emily Dickinson cared about events that mattered to the nation."


 In 1864, Dickinson wrote to her first cousins, Louise and Frances Norcross, "Sorrow seems more general than it did, and not the estate of a few persons, since the war began; and if the anguish of others helped one with one's own, now would be many medicines." She was not a didactic poet like, say, Julia Ward Howe, who justified the American conflict with biblical righteousness, but she followed the political and social issues, the cataclysm that convulsed the nation, and registered the overriding anguish. She told her cousins, "I noticed that Robert Browning had made another poem, and was astonished—till I remembered that I, myself, in my smaller way, sang off charnel steps." In her most explicit Civil War poem, she confessed: "It feels a

shame to be Alive - / When Men so brave - / Are dead - / One envies the Distinguished Dust - / Permitted - such a Head -" (#524). Many of Dickinson's poems address mortality, the war outside matched only by the one within.

During these years, Dickinson often wavers or argues or even wars with herself about the concept of death as grievous end point. Sometimes she suggests we are doomed to oblivion, other times she posits a form of ongoing or eternal life. "The Risks of Immortality are perhaps its' charm," she speculated to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "A secure Delight suffers in enchantment."

  It was initially possible to overlook the historical timeline of "Because I could not stop for Death" because it wasn't published until some three decades later in her first posthumous collection, Poems of Emily Dickinson Dickinson's (1890), which was edited by two of her friends and advocates, Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. They were more sensitive to the merits of her work than has been allowed, though they also bowdlerized her texts. They regularized the punctuation, changing dashes to commas, semicolons, and periods. In this poem, they altered the wording in four of the lines and deleted the crucial fourth stanza, which they viewed as contradictory. They also added a sentimental title, "The Chariot." It wasn't until Thomas Johnson's 1955 edition of Dickinson's poems that the original was partially restored, and it wasn't until R. W. Franklin's facsimile edition of The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (1981) that readers could see for themselves Dickinson's handwritten final version of what Allen Tate called "one of the perfect poems in English."

  "Because I could not stop for Death" has an eerie fatalism. It pairs with "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died" (#591). In these two poems the speaker is already dead and addresses us from the other side of the grave. This estranges the ritual or processional feeling. We don't usually think of a dead person consciously attending her own funeral. Dickinson's poems are almost always spoken from the first-person point of view and feel confessional, but her characteristic speaker is fictive or provisional. She throws her voice. I consider her as much a poet of persona as, say, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two of her favorite poets. As she cautioned Higginson in a letter in July 1862: "When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person."

  Dickinson's poems are also suppositions, many of them about time and timelessness. Her innate skepticism keeps undermining her faith, and she can't hold fast to one belief. As she wrote to her cousin Perez Dickinson Cowan, "You speak with so much trust of that which only trust can prove, it makes me feel away, as if my English mates spoke sudden in Italian." She often seems panicky and terrified of death, somewhat at sea, frightened of the literal moment of dying, and determined to find something in its aftermath. She chastised Cowan and confided in him: "It grieves me that you speak of Death with so much expectation. I know there is no pang like that for those we love, nor any leisure like the one they leave so closed behind them, but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road. I suppose we are all thinking of Immortality, at times so stimulated that we cannot sleep."

Dickinson's nervous excitement is often palpable in her poems. She kept working variations on her core subjects, death and immortality, and testing their consequences. That's why it's so hard to get a single fix on her belief system. For example, in "Because I could not stop for Death" the speaker is accompanied by Immortality, which suggests something deathless, and headed toward Eternity, which suggests something endless, an indefinite length of time. In a later poem, #743, she reverses the terms and proposes just the opposite:


  Behind Me - dips Eternity -

  Before Me - Immortality -

  Myself - the Term between -


Dickinson treats the self here as small and liminal: it exists between hyphens, two endless expanses. The word Term is abidingly clever. It suggests that the self is a word with a precise meaning, like a figure in a poem, but it also connotes a fixed period of time. We are not made to last. Dickinson's wit was a shield against fear. She was a recluse, a stay-at-home, but poetry was her means of transport and she used it as a vehicle to journey beyond time.

  Dickinson's poems are simultaneously compressed and expansive—she has a way of stretching out or contracting time—and here it takes her six stanzas, just twenty-four lines, to dramatize a personal encounter with death, who is personified as a gentle, courteous male figure who takes her on a mysterious carriage ride and journey. A. R. Ammons said that "a poem is a walk," but this one is paced as a carriage ride, like the ones that the Dickinson girls, Emily and Lavinia, often took with their father. In New England towns, it was common for young men to take young women for outings in a horse-drawn carriage. Dickinson's biographers have speculated that this poem was specifically instigated by the death of her distant cousin Olivia Coleman, a beautiful twenty-year-old, much sought after in Amherst, who was sick with "galloping consumption" and suddenly suffered a hemorrhage while she was out riding in a carriage. It seems likely that Dickinson took a biographical incident and fused it with her literary influences. For example, I hear an echo of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" ("for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death") and Robert Browning's poem "The Last Ride Together":


  What if we still ride on, we two

  With life for ever old yet new,

  Changed not in kind but in degree,

  The instant made eternity,—

  And heaven just prove that I and she

  Ride, ride together, for ever ride?


Dickinson might have felt the relevance of the medieval story of Death and the Maiden, though her maiden has a speaking role, and I feel the backdrop of the classical myth of Persephone, who was violently abducted by Hades and carried off to the underworld. But unlike the Greek mythicist, Dickinson adds an element of genteel courtesy to the terrifying operation.

  One of the more startling things about "Because I could not stop for Death" is that the speaker doesn't take herself to be a victim or rail against her fate. She goes off willingly, almost without affect. There is a quiet, cordial formality to the trip, which is echoed in the form of the poem. Dickinson employs here one of her favorite metrical forms, common meter, which consists of alternating four-beat and three-beat lines. This traditional form— think of "Amazing Grace"—is one of the three standard variations of the hymn form, and she uses it here to create the steady, rocking motion of a final ride in a horse-drawn carriage.

  Dickinson was outwardly quiet but inwardly subversive, a secret revolutionary, and she typically used the hymn form to undermine its inherent communitarian values. David T. Porter and other scholars have argued that by its very nature the hymn form carries an attitude "of faith, humility, and inspiration," a baseline of orthodoxy that Dickinson artfully refracts in her poems. Think of her quirky punctuation. It was not unusual to capitalize nouns for emphasis in the mid-nineteenth century, and letter writers commonly used dashes, and yet Dickinson marshaled these devices with so much force that it seems almost as if she invented them, capitalizing nouns for

special emphasis, and punctuating her poems liberally with dashes, creating extra intensities, isolating phrases. So, too, she uses a traditional rhyme scheme of abcb but fulfills it with a series of loose, surprising, and unorthodox rhymes. For her, the rebellion is personal, the feeling distinct, and scandalously individualistic.

  "Because I could not stop for Death" is conceived in the past tense. At the beginning, the speaker remembers being immersed in life itself, too busy to pay attention to death, but then death comes calling at her door. This is a witty comment on normal human experience because we are all always too busy to die, though death is never too busy to stop by for us. We don't ordinarily think of death as "kindly"—it is more often figured as a "grim reaper"—but here it is personified as a well-mannered caller who takes the speaker on a formal outing. It's the two of them and one other unexpected companion, a sort of chaperone, Immortality. There are dashes at the end point of each of the first three lines, as if to isolate each stage of the departure. This creates an additional surprise at the end of the third line, where there is no grammatical purpose to the extra dash. The reader pauses at the end of the line—"just Ourselves"—and then breathes out, "And Immortality." Note the end rhyme in the first stanza, how a small, one-syllable word, me, rhymes with a grand five-syllable word, Immortality, capitalized for emphasis. In a letter to Higginson, Dickinson called Immortality "the Flood Subject," which suggests that it's totally uncontainable. Now that very immensity, something or someone completely overwhelming, is accompanying her speaker. Present and accounted for, it is inside the carriage with her.

  There is calm stateliness to the procession—"We slowly drove - He knew no haste"—since death doesn't need to hurry, He exists outside of time. The speaker acknowledges that she had now "put away" or given up her earthly days, which the poet ties together with the alliterative words labor and leisure. She has traded them in for his comity. There is an eye rhyme in the words away and Civility. Death is characterized as a courtly suitor.

  There is a precise process of maturation encapsulated in the third stanza, which progresses through the course of a day from noon to dusk. Dickinson purposefully capitalizes and alliterates Recess and Ring, Gazing Grain, and Setting Sun. This helps to slow and ritualize the movement of the carriage in time. The children at play, the only other people in the poem, still have a future in front of them. The gazing grain is ripe and has reached maturity, the sun is going down or dying. There is a slight dissonance in the supposed rhyme of Ring and Sun, which sets up the jarring turn in the fourth stanza: "Or rather - He passed Us."


  Dickinson corrects herself here. This move troubled her editors, but now seems a sign of her intellectual trustworthiness. The galloping motion of the horses, the iambic meter and steady rhythm, are suddenly ruptured. The poem takes on a different time signature. She now understands that the sun will continue revolving day after day, but her journey is ending. She captures the texture of time passing—the word passed is repeated four times in the third and fourth stanzas, the middle of the poem—and a warm day inevitably turning into a chilly night. The speaker is dressed for an evening out—she is wearing a gossamer, or very thin, light gown and a tippet, a narrow piece in a of clothing worn over the shoulders, that is made of tulle, a lightweight, extremely fine, even dreamy fabric, often used to embellish wedding gowns. The implication is inevitable that she is dressed for some grand outing, probably a ball, possibly a wedding. But she has forgotten her coat and now seems exposed to the cold. Dickinson's tight alliterations—"Dews / drew"; "Gossamer / Gown"; "Tippet / Tulle"—suggest how the shivery cold is pressing down on the speaker. There is a purposeful slant rhyme in Chill and Tulle.

  Everything has been leading to the next quatrain, which might have concluded the poem. The journey should have ended, but the speaker uses the word paused to indicate how the carriage has come to a halt outside what is presumably a cemetery. She describes a stone vault—seemingly her own grave—as a house buried in the ground. So this is where her body will be permanently housed. She emphasizes the finality by doubling the word Ground and using it as an identical rhyme. But this house only seems to be her final resting place.

  The last stanza still comes as a shock:


  Since then - 'tis Centuries - and yet

  Feels shorter than the Day

  I first surmised the Horses' Heads

  Were toward Eternity -


The speaker is addressing us from beyond the grave now in some altered, ever-present moment. Time has been skewed. Centuries have passed and yet feel shorter than the momentous single day that death stopped and carried her away. The lyric changes from past to present tense with the verb Feels.

The word surmised is noteworthy because it indicates that the speaker initially presumed something to be true based on scanty evidence. She recalls that it was during her carriage ride that she first guessed that the horses in front of her were continuing past the graveside, their heads angled "toward Eternity." What she first conjectured now seems even more likely, though she still can't quite see beyond the heads of the horses. Just as the tiny word me rhymes with the enormous word Immortality at the beginning of the poem, so now does the small word Day, which suggests something temporal, pair with the larger word Eternity, which is beyond time. So, too, the poem closes with a dash and not a period. It halts but doesn't conclude. The speaker is left in a state of suspended animation, always traveling, never arriving.

  Emily Dickinson was an extremist of the imagination, a visionary thinker, a spiritual revisionist, like Emily Brontë and St. John of the Cross, like Sor Juana and Arthur Rimbaud. She stated, "Forever - is coposed of Nows" (#690, and proposed, "Forever might be short" (#618). At the conclusion of "Because I could not stop for Death," she posits the soul of a speaker who is still alive centuries after her mortal death, someone who is forever in transit and never stops, never lands, never reaches a final fixed or stable destination. She now exists in a state of timelessness. To read Emily Dickinson's work is to travel from one state of time to another, to accompany her on a stately, original, and terrifying journey.



Edward Hirsch: “The Heart of American Poetry”


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